On Factions

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Look no further than recent comments from Clintonista Jennifer Palmieri to see why republics must minimize the destructive effects of factions. A portion of her recent confidential memo, which leaked to the press, reminded senior democrats that their future electoral success depends on keeping the illegal alien so-called “dreamers” here in the US. Not for the good of the nation, but for the profit and ambitions of the party, democrats must defend, keep, and make democrat voters of these people at all costs.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. How did our government, one designed to promote the general welfare of all, degrade into mechanism that rewards the avarice and ambition of factions, of political parties who put their interests far ahead of those of the republic? What the heck happened?

Republics, which rest on the foundation of the people, must continually guard against the abuse of democratic institutions by factions for their own benefit. Factions, per James Madison, are groups of citizens (either a minority or majority) united by some “interest adverse to the rights of other citizens or to the aggregate interests of the community.”1

Factions are not new. They are endemic to popular government, and the more popular the government, the more dependent government is on the passions of the people, the greater the influence of dangerous factions. Having tossed aside an oppressive king in 1776, the first state governments were radically democratic, so democratic that governors and judges often served at the whim of factional legislatures.

These early state legislatures often appointed governors and even judges, who were mere ciphers totally dependent on the popular legislatures, with little or no power to resist or control political and social instability. Such was the mixing of the three functions of government that legislatures often dominated the administration of justice; becoming a court of chancery, interfering in causes between parties, reversing court judgments, staying executions, and even prohibiting court actions in matters pertaining to land titles, and debts! In their assumption of judicial power, wrote Alexander Hanson in 1784, “only their crude notions of equity,” guided the legislators.2 Where popular factions dominate, liberty and property are insecure.

“The legislature swallowing up all the other powers,” as James Wilson put it, was a widespread practice that “doth as certainly produce instances of bad government as any other unwarrantable accumulation of authority.”3 State constitutions were not immune from legislative assault. In the hands of democratic assemblies, state constitutions had no higher authority than any other ordinances.4 Absent respect and enforcement of fundamental law, democratic factions will turn the law to their advantage.

Such was the problem of factions, that even the best state constitution of the era, that of Massachusetts (1780), could not tame the threat. Here, the House of Representatives did not appoint the senate. The senate was a smaller body of forty men elected from special districts proportioned to the taxes paid by the inhabitants.5 No other state demarked so well separate houses for the few and the many. In one important aspect, the MA senate served its purpose; it quelled the wild democratic proposals from the house.

Yet, factional disputes dominated the MA legislature. Instead of allowing the natural aristocracy of wisdom and talent a special voice to promote the welfare of the people equally with the lower house, the senate evolved into a blatantly self-interested, factional body representing the concerns of the propertied class set in opposition to the common good of all.6 This struggle between the few and the many stymied necessary legislation, the absence of which led to social turmoil, culminating in Shays Rebellion of 1786-1787.

The failure of the Massachusetts constitution to secure the public good against the dangers of faction did not bode well for the constitution-makers a few months later in the summer of 1787. If the recognized best state constitution, which featured, like the British constitution, a distinct second upper house, failed to secure the general welfare, what design could possibly do so for a nation spread across thirteen states?

In the next squib, we’ll find the lessons from Massachusetts put into practice in our beloved Constitution.

We are the many; our oppressors are the few. Government is the playground of politicians, but the Constitution is ours. Be proactive. Restore the American Tradition. Join Convention of States.

1. The Federalist #10.
2. Wood, G. S. (1969). The Creation of the American Republic 1776-1787. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press., 407.
3. Ibid., 408-409.
4. Ibid., 276.
5. Ibid., 434. Members of the House, Senate, and Governors qualified for office by an ascending scale of wealth. Governor held an absolute veto over bills, and appointed judges and leading civil officers. See much more here: Massachusetts Constitution.
6. Ibid., 503.